2020-12-14

Midrashic Writing Workshop

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by Neil Godfrey

Recent posts have focussed heavily on “midrashic writing” techniques in the Gospels. Here is a passage from one of Maurice Mergui’s books on Jewish and New Testament midrashic writing. It is a principally a Google translation with my edits. It gives just a little taste of how it works.

Midrashic Writing Workshop

To better understand the process of elaboration of [an episode in Acts], it is necessary to penetrate more deeply into the concrete conditions of production of midrashic elaborations. I suggest that you take part in a midrashic writing workshop. Theme of the workshop:Knowing that the coming of the messiah is accompanied by the conversion of the pagans and that they are compared to beasts, to produce a midrashic elaboration that is both original and strictly identical to the episode of the conversion of the eunuch [in Acts]. Imposed figure: the main actor will be a lion.

Editorial advice/Writing tips

You must first choose the type of narration you intend to imitate among the few known types (Vision, Testament, Pseudepigrapha Apocryphal Act, Revelation …) As you are asked here to imitate a passage from Acts, it is best to choose the Acts form. Give the apostle a name (Paul, Philippe …). At the end of time, the pagans (the beasts) must be converted. It is therefore necessary that your apostle convert one or more lions since you are obliged to use this figure.

How are you going to build your actantial narrative schema, as we say now? Very simply: the pagans are compared to beasts because they do not have the Law, itself represented by water. The animals lack water, you see: it is not rocket science. The conversion is an inversion, it will therefore consist in saturating them with water, in submerging them. It is therefore sufficient that the Apostle baptizes your Lion. You will have taken care beforehand to create the conditions so that the Apostle can make himself understood by the noble animal. The latter must therefore have received the messiah, indeed if he receives the messiah, he ipso facto receives the davar (the verb, the promise, the word). This will have the double advantage of ensuring that the said lion understands the apostle’s invitation to enter the water (something that animals do not like to do spontaneously, the pagans having always rejected the Law) and especially to this let the lion speak, which will add wonder to your narration, and give it the literary prestige of the fable. Your account is expected to take into account the characteristics of the midrashic genre. You are therefore invited to play with words and to produce as much overdetermination as possible. For example, your Beasts could be terrifying Empires at the same time. Remember to use the connotation of the other Hebrew names for the lion: shahal (request, Saul), kefir (apostasy), gur (ger: convert) …

The Converted lion

Here is an example of the text you could produce:

I, Paul, was leaving with the widow Lemma and her daughter Ammia. I was walking in the night with the intention of going to Jericho in Phoenicia … It was then that a great and terrible lion arose from the valley … but we prayed so that absorbed in prayer, Lemma and Ammia did not see the beast. But when I had finished praying, the animal was at my feet. I was filled with the Spirit and I looked at him saying to him: Lion, what do you want? and he said: I want to be baptized. I glorified God for having given the word to this animal and salvation to his servants. There was a deep river there. I entered the water and he followed me … I overpowered the lion as if it were an ox … But I stayed on the edge, shouting: You who live in the heights, you who, with Daniel shut the mouths of the Lions, grant us to escape the Beast and carry out the project you have set … So, I took the lion by the mane and I submerged it three times … When it came out out of the water he shook his mane and said, Grace be with you, and I answered him, So be it with you also.

Comments

• The creation of secondary characters like Lemma and Ammia is original. We could however regret here that your story does not give enough keys to the reader to appreciate the mode of production of these characters.
• I was walking in the night: yes! Classic allusion to exile.
• Jericho in Phoenicia: The reference to Jericho is opportune because this city is, in the Bible, automatically linked to the Jordan (and to Rahab) which announces your river (and conversion). Likewise, it refers to Jeremiah 12:5 (what will you do against the lions of the Jordan?) But you should justify the term Phoenicia.
• The reference to Daniel is timely. The mouth of the beasts was once closed, it is no longer necessary at the end of time. It can therefore open again.
• I submerged it three times: justify this figure. Despite your lack of experience, you produced an elaboration perfectly identical to that of the conversion of the eunuch [in Acts], in the sense that the two elaborations meet the same specifications.

Mergui, Maurice. Paul À Patras: Une Approche Midrashique Du Paulinisme. Objectif Transmission, 2015.


2020-12-11

Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

We now continue our exploration of Nanine Charbonnel’s case for Jesus Christ being a literary-theological creation using the techniques of a “midrashic” re-reading and interpretation of Jewish Scriptures. The full series is archived at https://vridar.org/tag/charbonnel-jesus-christ-sublime-figure-de-papier/

Double Personification

The gospel figure of Jesus Christ was created as a “double personification”:

  • he was created as a personification of a people — both the Jewish people and ultimately as a “new people of God”. Nanine Charbonnel [NC] calls this “horizontal personification”. This is why we so readily see in the Jesus character aspects of the ideal King, the Prophet, the Priest, the Suffering Servant, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who as a new Adam creates in himself one new people

at the same time,

  • he was created as a personification of the fundamentals of the Jewish religion and its spiritual and heavenly and eternal focus — he is the embodiment of God and God’s presence with his people. As such, he embodies the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Glory and Presence, Glory (Shekinah) of God, the Word of God, the Law, the Name of God through which he saves.

The authors of the gospels were familiar with the Jewish literary technique of creating individual characters to represent collective ethnic groups. Recall, for example, the creation of the Jacob-Esau story which begins with the explanation that the two boys represent “two nations” (Gen 25:23). Recent posts have set out NC’s illustration of this technique with lesser characters. By creating the gospel Jesus figure they were seeking to create a new person who represented both a new people of God and the God who came to dwell with them. NC details the way Jesus was drawn to embody the divine persons and entities. She calls this “vertical personification”. This post and those immediately succeeding it look at how the authors have created a “horizontal” personification of a “new man”.

The New Adam

Before the gospels were penned Christians thought of Jesus as a “new Adam”. Thus Paul in 1 Cor 15:45-49

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. . . .

See also Rom 5:17-18.

This second Adam is created in the same way the first Adam was — as a symbol or representative of mankind. Adam is a literary figure, a single character, but one with whom all of humanity are meant to identify. NC quoted from Paul Ricoeur‘s discussion of the Adam myth:

In Adam we are one and all; the mythical figure of the first man provides a focal point at the beginning of history for man’s unity-in-multiplicity. (244)

Jewish elites have addressed the idea of Adam in Genesis. NC mentions Philo as an example. Philo determined that the Adam created in God’s image was the perfect, heavenly Adam; while the Adam of dust was the corruptible Adam who needed laws to control him from his base tendencies. We will see that the heavenly Adam is also the son of God.

It is “Yahweh who saves” (the Hebrew meaning of the name Jesus) who was imagined as the “new Adam”, the embodiment of (redeemed) humanity.

Another instance not mentioned by NC, but one addressed by many scholars commenting on the Gospel of Mark, is the apparent depiction of Jesus as the New Adam cum Messianic figure in the wilderness where he is “with the wild animals”.

and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:13)

The gospel begins with an echo of the beginning of Genesis (“the beginning of the gospel”) and after the parting of heavens (as per the parting of the waters “at the creation of the cosmos”– Allison, New Moses 200, Thompson, Mythic Past 18 ff, Spong, Liberating the Gospels, 33 ff) and leads to Jesus being tempted by Satan, with the animals and angels, as was Adam in Genesis and Jewish writings of the Second Temple era elaborating on the Adam story. Where Adam failed in his temptation, Jesus succeeded; where Adam once had but then lost his companionship and peace with wild animals Jesus restored harmony with them; where the angels refused to serve Adam they did serve Jesus. Jewish apocrypha also said angels fed Adam for a time. Other scholars prefer to interpret the passage as a proleptic fulfilment of harmony with animals by Isaiah’s messiah; some accept both interpretations together. I will post about this interpretation of Mark 1:13 with reference to Richard Bauckham, Ulrich Mell, Joel Marcus, C.S. Mann, Francis Maloney, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington in a future post.)

We saw in a previous post that the place of Christ’s crucifixion was also associated with the place of Adam’s burial. This likelihood is suggestive of Jesus being understood as the new life-giving Adam.

The New Moses

Since the twelve disciples are symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jesus is the new Moses. The famous transfiguration scene clearly indicates that Jesus is the embodiment of the law represented by Moses and the prophets represented by Elijah. Moses was made radiant as was Jesus; both were covered with the cloud of God’s glory; both were ordained by God to be the shepherds and teachers of the twelve tribes/disciples; both perform miraculous signs; and so forth and so forth. NC copies forty points that some Catholic exegetes have seen that demonstrate Jesus as the new Moses:

NC admits that not all of the 40 points listed there are unquestionable. One that springs to notice for me is the point that Jesus left a higher royal court to join his lowly people — as Moses left Pharaoh’s court to join his people — is taken from Philippians 2:5-7; yet this detail is not found in the context of a Moses comparison. There are, nonetheless, reputable scholarly works that make the case for the Gospel of Matthew in particular deliberately building up Jesus on the Moses template. One of the more notable works is The New Moses: A Matthean Typology by Dale C. Allison Jr. I looked at one of Allison’s discussions in the post Additional Sauces for the Feedings of 5000 and 4000. NC does not mention Allison’s book so this is my addition to her discussion and what I think is a more trenchantly argued replacement than the 40 point list. Allison states in his concluding chapter,S

The Moses typology, especially strong in the infancy narrative and the [Sermon on the Mount], definitely shapes all of Matthew 1-7. It is also definitely present in the great thanksgiving of 11:25-30, in the narrative of the transfiguration (17:1-9), and in the concluding verses, 28:16-20.1 am further inclined, but with less faith, to find the typology in the feeding stories (14:13-22; 15:29-39), the entry into Jerusalem (21:1-17), and the last supper (26:17-25). But proposals concerning the missionary discourse, the requests for a sign (12:38; 16:1), the woes of chapter 23, the eschatological discourse, and the crucifixion (27:45-53) are to be rejected or entertained as nothing more than possibilities.

An interesting observation emerges from the foregoing conclusions: the passages in which Moses’ tacit presence is the strongest display an order which mirrors the Pentateuch:

Matthew The Pentateuch
1-2 Exod. 1:1-2:10 infancy narrative
3:13-17 Exod. 14:10-31 crossing of water
4:1-11 Exod. 16:1-17:7 wilderness temptation
5-7 Exod. 19:1-23:33 mountain of lawgiving
11:25-30 Exod. 33:1-23 reciprocal knowledge of God
17:1-9 Exod. 34:29-35 transfiguration
28:16-20 Deut. 31:7-9
Josh. 1:1-9
commissioning of successor

(Allison, 268)

The Gospel of Matthew is not the only one where Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Compare this snippet from another post about a year ago, OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3

Mark 3:7-10

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many . . . .

Exodus 12:37-38; 15:22-26
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and childrenMany other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds. . . . Then Moses led Israel . . . He said, “If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”
Mark 3:13-19

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Exodus 19:1-2, 17

On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt . . . and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. . . .

Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.

Exodus 24:1, 4, 8-10

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. . . .

He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. . . .

Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.

Many more Moses imitations are cited throughout Isaiah’s New Exodus by Rikki E. Watts. One of many examples in which Watts is outlining the work of another scholar,

Although at first sight Mark appears to make little use of the OT, M. D. Hooker recognises that this is largely because of his distinctive approach. Not only is the opening quotation significant, ‘his story is good news precisely because it is the fulfilment of Scripture‘, but ‘Jesus’ words and activities constantly echo OT scenes and language, until what is “written” of the Son of Man (9:12; 10:21) is finally fulfilled’ (p. 220). . . . 

In the conflict over the Pharisees’ and scribes’ traditions, Mark 7:1-23 shows that while Jesus upholds the Law (vv. 1-13; cf. Nu 30:2; Dt 23:21-23) his authority is even greater than that of the Law (vv. 14-23). The same is borne out in examinations of 12:18ff and 28-34 (p. 224), and several Pentateuchal allusions (2:1-10; 2:23 – 3:6; cf. 1:44). Three other allusions recalling incidents in Moses’ life serve likewise to demonstrate that Jesus is either Moses’ successor (6:34, cf. Nu 27:17) or his superior (9:2-13; cf. Ex 24:15f; Dt 18:15), while 9:38-40 (cf. Nu 11:26-29) shows Jesus acting as did Moses.

(Watts, 24 f)

Scholarly Resistance to Comparisons

Continue reading “Jesus Christ Created as an Epitome of Old Testament Figures (1) — Charbonnel and Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier”


2020-12-10

Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?

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by Neil Godfrey

Back in August this year, I introduced a hypothesis that what we read in Josephus’s Antiquities about John “the Baptist” is actually a misplaced episode about the John Hyrcanus II. (See the relevant section linked here in the discussion of the festschrift for Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.) I won’t go into the details of Doudna’s argument yet so check the summary to get the context for this post.

The point here is that if Doudna’s idea is correct then the gospel authors drew their template for John the Baptist from the writings of Josephus in the early 90s. There would be no reason to justify any other source; there was no oral tradition or historical person or event to draw upon — nothing but a literary confusion stands alone as the source.

Now why would the first evangelist to write a gospel (we’ll call him Mark) introduce a story about Jesus with an Elijah-like figure baptizing “all of Judea and Jerusalem” in the Jordan river?

By the way, I stress that Mark does not say “some” of the people of Judea and Jerusalem but he speaks of the whole population being baptized and Matthew follows him here. It is easy to dismiss this phrase as an exaggeration but why would our evangelists exaggerate to such an astonishing extent? Why would they begin the ministry of Jesus with a claim that Judea itself was baptized by John? If we try to imagine the evangelists putting a hyperbolic spin on “historical memories” then we have to wonder why they could not see that they somewhat overdid it and thereby undermined their credibility. Or — there is another explanation…. One of the oldest critics to spell out this alternative was David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century. He wrote:

The baptism of John could scarcely have been derived from the baptism of proselytes, for this rite was unquestionably posterior to the rise of Christianity. It was more analagous to the religious lustrations in practice amongst the Jews, especially the Essenes, and was apparently founded chiefly on certain expressions used by several of the prophets in a figurative sense, but afterwards understood literally.

* By “source”, I mean to exclude the notion that the evangelists used the Jewish Scriptures merely to add a bit of scriptural colouring to what were ultimately historical memories or traditions about Jesus. I mean the narrative described allusively to the Scriptures was itself inspired by the Scriptures. Unlike other historical accounts where historical figures are given mythical overlays, there is nothing left of the figure of Jesus once we remove those scriptural overlays. Alexander the Great and Hadrian may have been compared with Dionysus and Heracles, and Socrates may even have emulated Achilles in one sense, but remove those mythical images and we still have lots of the flesh of the historical persons visible to us. That’s not the case when we remove the myth from Jesus.

Ah yes, we return once more to the Jewish Scriptures being the source* of the gospels. So what are those “certain expressions used by several of the prophets”?

According to these expressions, God requires from the Israelitish people, as a condition of their restoration to his favour, a washing and purification from their iniquity, and he promises that he will himself cleanse them with water (Isaiah i. 16, Ez. xxxvi. 25, comp. Jer. ii. 22).

For those too rushed or lazy to click on the references here they are on a platter:

Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.

Finally,

Add to this the Jewish notion that the Messiah would not appear with his kingdom until the Israelites repented,9 and we have the combination necessary for the belief that an ablution, symbolical of conversion and forgiveness of sins, must precede the advent of the Messiah.

9 Sanhedr. f. xcvii. 2 : R. Elieser dixit : si Israélite pænitentiam agunt, tunc per Croeiem liberantur ; sin vero, non liberantur. Schöttgen, horæ, 2, p. 780 ff.

(Strauss, Life of Jesus, Pt 2, ch2, §45)

So we can imagine our first evangelist thinking:

I need to begin by having Israel repent so the Messiah can come — as we understand from our holy books. The Jordan River seems like a logical place to start. That’s where Joshua renewed the covenant with Israel. But how to get them all assembled there? And we need Elijah to be the herald of the Messiah at the same time, as per Malachi. . . . Hey, what was that in Josephus about John the Immerser? … Ah yes, perfect… I’ll use him. He gets arrested and sent to prison, and that’s something I can work with, too. And being a ritual baptizer, how convenient that that fits right in with the conversion of the nation being a washing or sprinkling in the prophets. Right…. here we go, clothing our John with Elijah’s garb and having him represent the “OT”…

And so we have it: all the Jews repent by going out to a John who is redescribed as Elijah and are baptized in the Jordan.

Once that “little detail” is out of the way, the journey of Jesus begins. Of course, the repentance of his people preceding his coming is soon forgotten as demons come in and Jesus has to contend with unbelievers, enemies, and so forth. But many do accept him even if they don’t fully understand what he’s all about till after the resurrection.

Is it likely, though, that Josephus could have been so “sloppy” as to misplace a story about John Hyrcanus so that later readers interpreted his John through their knowledge of the gospels? Recall certain observations I noted in Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .

It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources);. . . (112).

and

Many scholars . . . argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.

One can imagine arguments breaking out from time to time in the editorial room.

The Date of Mark?

Continue reading “Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark?”


2020-12-09

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)

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by Tim Widowfield

Smith and the Ideal Type

As you recall from the first post in this series, on several occasions Robert M. Price has accused Jonathan Z. Smith of not understanding and grossly misapplying Max Weber’s ideal type. For example, in Price’s critique of Drudgery Divine (see: Higher Critical Review), he wrote:

In the same way, Smith seems unwilling to admit the viability of an ideal type of the dying-and-rising god mytheme. If the various myths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, et. [sic] al. do not all conform to type exactly, then they are not sufficiently alike to fit into the same box, so let’s throw out the box. Without everything in common, he sees nothing in common. [Price 1996]

Eugene V. Gallagher

He has recycled this accusation elsewhere, sometimes copying and pasting the “et.” error, sometimes not. Price is quite proud of his “throw-out-the-box” turn of phrase, as he should be — if he were correct.

Fortunately for us, Smith actually discussed ideal types, so we have a window into his thinking on the matter. In a footnote on p. 99 of Drudgery Divine, he refers to a book by one of his students, Eugene V. Gallagher. In Divine Man or Magician, Gallagher examined the work of Ludwig Bieler, whose studies of the divine man (θεῖος ἀνήρ) type were groundbreaking and insightful, but often misunderstood.

Smith put it this way:

While justifiable criticisms can be brought against both Bieler’s theoretical presuppositions and his methodological procedures, it is sadly revealing and utterly characteristic that most scholars of early Christianity have fundamentally misunderstood his enterprise, in that they have historicized the Typus and viewed the second comparative step as genealogical. E. V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician? Celsus and Origen on Jesus (Chico, 1982): 10-18, in the series, SBLD, 64, offers a sophisticated account of Bieler’s enterprise, and usefully compares his work to Max Weber’s notion of the ‘ideal type’. [Smith 1990, p. 99]

Let’s examine the two fundamental errors Smith has identified above. First, some scholars forgot (did they ever know?) that the ideal type is a modern construct. The “theios aner” exists not in the historical past, but in the realm of ideas. Hence, to criticize Bieler’s type as an anachronism misses the point entirely. Second, when Smith criticizes scholars on the basis of genealogy, he means they’ve jumped the gun on issues of dependence and who borrowed from whom. The second step should be that of analogy, which includes seeking evidence of both difference and similarity. In To Take Place, he wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 3)”


2020-12-08

Pit Stop in the Nanine Charbonnel Posts on the Literary Construction of Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

We are now about to enter the part of Nanine Charbonnel’s account of how Jesus was “incarnated” as a “god-man” in the canonical gospels. Let’s recap what we have covered so far.

All of the posts in this series are collated in reverse chronological order at Charbonnel: Jesus Christ sublime figure de papier

The earliest posts covered Jewish practices of writing and interpreting texts that are alien to us today. We saw how numerical values of words could give special meanings to words. We saw how similar sounds, assonance and alliteration, could link quite different words to create a new conceptual relationship between them. We saw how certain narrative sequences or images could take on renewed meanings as they were repeated with adaptations in new stories. And so forth.

Charbonnel then sought to demonstrate that the gospels were written as “midrashic” fulfilments of Jewish Scriptures and other writings and legends or sayings of the Second Temple era. (Midrashic techniques addressed in the first section of the book were frequently shown to be the source of the gospel narrative.) The intention of my recent tables across seven posts was to set out Charbonnel’s evidence demonstrating the reasonableness of the view that the evangelists were constructing narratives to make them “fit” or “work out” the “prophecies” or (I am adding this part) “past situations that called out for redress and were therefore interpreted as implicit prophecies”.

Tables setting out in detail gospel “fulfilments” of Jewish Scripture and other writings: Table 1Table 2; Table 3; Table 4; Table 5; Table 6; Table 7.

“Fulfilled scripture” is most simply explained in John Dominic Crossan words:

What we have now in those detailed passion accounts is not history remembered but prophecy historicized. (Crossan, Jesus, 145. Crossan himself did not dispute the historicity of Jesus. The sentence quoted here was specifically referring the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and burial. )

Charbonnel’s tables would persuade us that Crossan’s words apply to the entirety of the gospel narratives and not only the Passion scenes.

In my series of posts I began discussing the symbolic meanings of several of the key characters in the gospels prematurely. To keep in line with Charbonnel’s discussion the seven tables should precede those posts about symbolic characters.

In brief, the sequence so far:

Explanation of the various midrashic techniques of composition and interpretation.

Demonstration that the gospels were written “midrashically” as “fulfilment of Jewish writings.

Demonstration that the gospels were written with characters constructed as symbols, often symbols for collectives of people (e.g. Jews, gentiles). The ultimate character “midrashically” constructed as a symbolic figure was Jesus himself.

In preparation for the detailed discussion of how Jesus was so constructed, Charbonnel opened the chapter by pointing to some of the other figures in the gospels, showing us how they, too, were symbolic and represented various groups of persons.

So in preparation for the next part of this discussion about Jesus you might like to skim over these posts once again:

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels: Personifications of Jews and Gentiles

Zechariah and Elizabeth

Mary and Martha

The Hemorrhaging Woman and Daughter of Jairus

The Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well

Mary Magdalene

 

The Symbolic Characters in the Gospels #2: John the Baptist and the Twelve Disciples

John the Baptist

“John” and Peter race to the tomb

The Twelve Apostles: the twelve tribes of Israel

In the same post there are discussions of the meanings of names, the multiplicity of the same names, the various kinds of doublets.

 

Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined”

Mary and the Cana Wedding

Virgin Mothers of Moses and Jesus

Mary, the new Body, the Mystical Body

 

So with all of that now outlined I am ready to post about the “literary incarnation” of the central character of the gospels.

In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on some wider reading of certain French works often referenced by Nanine Charbonnel. They are also most interesting, even challenging, and I still trying to digest much of them. It will take me some time before I know enough and think through enough to take a stance for or against their views, what modifications I would want, etc. Before I reach that stage I am still enjoying a fascinating journey of discoveries. The most recent ones are an elaboration on the “midrashic” construction of the Paul figure, not only the Paul of Acts but also the Paul of the epistles. It is all giving me a slowly deepening understanding of where Charbonnel herself is coming from and a better appreciation for her arguments.


Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.


 


2020-12-06

“Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited

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by Neil Godfrey

Responses to some points made in a larger argument for the historicity of Jesus, Another Jesus Mythicism Discussion (I posted then soon deleted much of what follows about three weeks ago. My initial post was couched in a misunderstanding about the background to the original post.) I did return to the original site to continue discussion there but when I saw that commenters there are entitled to use insults on the apparent condition that they somehow “justify” them, I decided to have nothing to do with any discussion there.

Josephus and Tacitus say

So here we go. I link to posts where I have set out more detailed arguments for those interested in following up a particular thread:

Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed, . . .

Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate.

In a very loose way of speaking these statements are true. We do read those statements in our widely published texts of Josephus and Tacitus. However, each one is justified in the scholarly literature of which I am aware only by special pleading. Even though everything we know about ancient copying of texts and manuscript transmission warns us against being too ready to accept their contents at face value, scholars with a particular interest in arguing for the historicity of Jesus sometimes dismiss the serious arguments against the authenticity of key contents relating to Christianity. Often we read among works arguing for the historicity of Jesus that the reason Josephus did not mention “messiahs” of his day was that he did not want to upset his Roman audience who supposedly had sore memories of fighting a war supposedly inspired by Jewish messianism. Yet when it comes to finding the word for “messiah” (“Christ”) in Josephus relating to Jesus, suddenly there is no problem with Josephus breaking his supposed rule about not mentioning the word. That one place the word Christ appears is universally agreed to have been a Christian interpolation, and the second place it is clearly seen to be part of very awkward syntax, does not deter the “believers”. Contrary to what we would expect to find in the record if Josephus had said there was a Jesus known as the Christ “historicists” insist that Josephus must have said something like that anyway. That the second occurrence of the word — that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ who had a brother called James who was executed — conforms to everything the manuals of textual criticism tell us about scribal glosses makes no difference. Suddenly the instructions in such standard texts are forgotten.

As for the Tacitus reference, see The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Contortions to Hide a Birth in Nazareth?

Here is another point commonly used to argue for some historicity behind the gospels:

Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seemto be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all?

The first sentence is actually a conclusion that arises from circular reasoning. An interpretation is imposed on selected passages in the gospels and those sections that doe not fit are interpreted as a problem for the evangelist, not for the modern interpreter. How does the scholar know “what the evangelist is trying to tell us”? By setting aside a passage that they believe does not fit their theory. That is, by selecting only those details in the gospel that support the scholar’s theory and declaring the left-over bits as problems — not for the scholar — but for the evangelist.

But we know from countless instances in the ancient records, including the gospels, that if an author found something “embarrassing” or that did not fit a theological agenda, then the solution was simple: leave it out — no matter how well known it was. A classic instance of that is in the Gospel of John. That fourth gospel does not admit or hint that John baptized Jesus. Yet two other gospels clearly said he did; and a third hinted at it, omitting only that it was John himself who did the baptizing of Jesus.

The argument is sometimes called an appeal to the “criterion of embarrassment”. Yet the argument here assumes the historicity of Jesus as its premise. Why is a detail in the gospels a supposed embarrassment to the evangelist? Because we assume the evangelist is writing about not only a historical Jesus but about a Jesus who was also born at Nazareth, and that everyone knew this (even though Nazareth was supposedly so insignificant it would not be widely known at all), and so forth.

But if we make no assumptions at all about the gospel’s narrative having derived ultimately from historical events, then we have a perfectly seamless story with the Bethlehem-Nazareth scenarios posing no difficulties — for either the evangelist or modern reader — at all. It is well known that the title given Jesus of “Nazarene” or “Nazorean” does not derive from the place name of Nazareth (that would mean Jesus was known as “Jesus the Nazarethite”) but was related to an early name for a Christian sect. It is also evident that in the Gospel of Matthew we read a very tortured justification for linking this title to the town of Nazareth. The simplest explanation for the first Bethlehem-Nazareth story is that an evangelist was re-writing the history of the name of the sect.

There are other reasons for questioning whether a historical person of any status would ever have been known as “So-and-so of Nazareth”. There would be no point of saying someone was from a place so insignificant few would ever have heard of. Besides, does anyone know of any other case where a religious leader is known by some nondescript suburb or rural town? No, they are known by some label that identifies their teaching or sect. Furthermore, those who have taken the trouble to read either of Rene Salm’s book on the scholarly literature about the archaeology of Nazareth knows that there are good grounds for thinking that Nazareth was not repopulated in Roman times until the latter half of the first century. (Tim O’Neill’s objections are careless misrepresentations).

Even IF Jesus had been known by a reference to a place that most people had never heard of it makes absolutely no sense that his followers would be called by the same epithet. Yet we know that in some quarters early Christians were called “Nazarenes” or “Nazirs”. (I understand the Muslim culture still calls them by such a term.)

Why would anyone….!

Here is a clutch of the more common claims made for the historicity of Jesus — expressed as rhetorical questions:

Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings  as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include thee mbarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Some regular Vridar readers will be familiar with the following warning:

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea p. 178)

Rhetorical questions are too often substitutes for reasoned conclusions. They can convey the message, “My conclusion is surely so obvious that it needs no further justification.”

If one is not familiar with the breadth of scholarly literature on the questions raised then one might well feel that “the conclusions are obvious”. No contrary argument would be reasonable, it would seem. Continue reading ““Another Mythicist Discussion” Revisited”


2020-12-05

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey

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With this post I conclude setting out Nanine Charbonnel’s tables associating the gospels with Jewish Scriptures and other Jewish writings. With this section completed I am free to move on to discuss the remainder of her book, Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier.

The value of tables like these comes more from preparing them — or returning to them from time to time to take them in point by point — than a quick glance at them. One is compelled to ask about the intellectual world of the evangelists. One is brought into the mysterious world of what the authors read and spoke about, how they thought about what they read, what flashes of insight were sparked by their conversations all before anything was put into writing. Then by what creative process did each evangelist weave anew another variant of a story about a figure who represented a new Israel.

In the table below I have once again made a few edits to Charbonnel’s original. For one thing, not a few of the biblical references in French do not match those in English. All of these have been revised to their English references. A few times I was not sure what a reference or source meant so I have added a question mark to each of those places. (Example, [RG] — is this a reference to Rene Girard? If so, what work of his?) In some cases I have left Charbonnel’s notes entirely and replaced them with translations from the French (or Italian) source that had been cited.

None of the illustrations is in Charbonnel’s original table.

  • Some interesting features this time:
  • The crown of thorns might reasonably be associated with the parable of the thornbush that in the OT parable “would be king”.
  • Pilate’s famous “Here is the man!” statement has several possible sources in the OT, all associated, ironically, with ascension to kingship.
  • Matthew’s mob crying out for Jesus’ blood to be “on their heads” has in modern discussion been said to be an anti-semitic trope but when one notices its possible sources in the Jewish scriptures one sees it as originally not necessarily bearing any particularly anti-semitic connotation.
  • I had always been suspicious of those comments linking the old Hebrew letter tau with the cross of Jesus, but I am willing now to concede that there just might be something to the link. (I’m not suggesting that the original idea of a cross came from the alphabet, not at all.)
  • Another interesting link was the Jewish Scripture associations of the “good” thief’s dispute with his “bad” companion.
  • We all surely know of the Amos association with the sun going down at noon, but I had overlooked till now that this same image in Amos is tied to mourning for an only son.
  • The titulus crucis carries more Jewish Scripture echoes than I had ever suspected.
  • Nor was I aware of the earthquake at the time of Joshua’s death — a sign divinely activated to draw the population’s attention to that grave moment.
  • Again, we have several links to intertestamental literature and later rabbinic writings. And again, it is very reasonable to accept that those rabbinical writings had their origins in the Second Temple era and were known to the evangelists.
  • One related detail is the teaching that when Moses struck the rock twice, the first time blood flowed out, the second time, water. What was on the evangelist’s mind when he wrote of the spear drawing both blood and water from Jesus?
  • Justin Martyr’s quotation of Jeremiah is of special interest.
  • So is a Codex Bezae version of the Gospel of Luke. Again, we meet another piece of evidence that the evangelists knew the writings of Josephus, especially Wars. The east gate that miraculously opened by itself as a warning of Jerusalem’s doom was said by Josephus to have been so large that it took twenty men to open. The same image is found in Codex Bezae’s Luke.
  • I had known of the “I am” statements in the Greek Gospel of John but for some reason till now had overlooked them in the Gospel of Luke.
  • Charbonnel speaks of OT passages where one is said to “pass through walls” by the power of God, but the Hebrew speaks of scaling over. (A French translation does say “pass through” as the resurrected Jesus did.)
  • I would like to track down the Exodus Rabbah statement (in English) that foreshadows the “Do you seek the living among the dead” saying.
  • Oh yes… one more of particular note (for me) — is the “beloved disciple” a figure of the church?

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #7 (conclusion)”


2020-12-03

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Was Jesus a Dying-and-Rising God?

Burton Mack

As I mentioned in the previous post, over the past few months I’ve been rereading several important scholarly works from 20th-century NT Studies. I found it interesting that several scholars seemed to be in dialog with one another — especially those involved in Q Gospel research and the cynic-sage Jesus theory. Jonathan Z. Smith, for example, relied heavily on Burton Mack’s works, while Mack referred to Smith in his books, including (among others) The Christian MythWho Wrote the New Testament, and A Myth of Innocence.

As you may recall, in the last book listed above, Mack argued that some of the earliest Jesus-following groups were not Christ cults. In fact, the notions of Jesus’ martyrdom, resurrection, exaltation, ascension, etc. could have seemed alien to them.

It should be emphasized at this point that nowhere in this tradition running from Q into the early stages of biographic interest in Jesus is there any evidence for a view of Jesus’ death as a “saving event,” much less for thinking that Jesus had been transformed by means of a resurrection. The express application of the notion that Jesus had suffered a prophet’s fate appears to have been made when the authors of the gospels combined the Jesus traditions with views of Jesus’ death and resurrection that had developed in the Christ cults. But the notion of rejection was very near the surface in some of the later oracles in Q, thus preparing the way for thinking of Jesus as the rejected prophet. That Jesus had died a prophet’s death would only have meant, however, that he also and especially had been a true prophet in the line of prophets, nothing more. That would have been, in itself, a striking claim about Jesus and his purposes, to be sure, a claim of great significance for the emergence of Christian thought. But it would be wrong to read in any additional Christian nuances about the importance of Jesus’ death for those thinking in these terms. [Mack 1988, p. 86, emphasis mine]

Smith agreed. He believed that several competing groups of Jesus-followers sustained their own different communities. Some communities believed in a dying-and-rising Jesus; some did not. Consider the community that produced and preserved the Didache. For them, the bread and wine had nothing to do with the body and blood of a martyred savior.

[T]here is a set of Jesus-traditions which either do not focus on his death, or conceive of his death without attributing either saving significance to the death or linking it to a resurrection. For these latter options — a significance to Jesus’s death without a resurrection or the development of a ‘dying/rising’ myth with respect to Jesus — we must turn from the ‘movements in Palestine and southern Syria that cultivated the memory of Jesus as a founder-teacher’ to the ‘congregations in northern Syria, Asia Minor and Greece wherein the death and resurrection of the Christ were regarded as the founding events’. [Smith 1990, p. 138]

In Smith’s view, the Apostle Paul took the Jesus traditions he had received and pushed them along a new path of development, emphasizing the death-and-resurrection motif to that point where even the most central cultic rituals drew their entire meaning from it. And yet other Jesus-following communities focused their concerns on other things. He cites Mack here, noting five groups that “constructed thoroughly satisfying Jesus-myths without either a death or a resurrection.” [Reformatted below:] Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 2)”


2020-12-02

Who Will See “The Kingdom of God Coming with Power” in Mark 9:1?

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by Neil Godfrey

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” — Mark 9:1

We know what follows so we read on to see “the fulfilment” of that saying six days later with Peter, James and John on the mountain witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus. But look what happens when we ignore the chapter breaks and read that passage in the context of the preceding verses.

8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 

He said to the crowd along with his disciples, “If any of you are ashamed of me then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in glory and with the angels”, and, “some of you who are standing here will see the kingdom coming….”

The promise — or is it a warning? — that some of his audience would be alive to see the coming kingdom is spoken as an immediate follow-on from his warning that he would come in glory and with angels to judge that sinful and adulterous generation standing before him.

If you are one of those who have balked at this saying of Jesus hinting at Peter, James and John you are not alone. The message of “some who are standing here will not taste death before….” becomes a mock saying if it pointed to what was to happen only six days hence.

9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

A better paragraph break would be,

8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” 9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” 

2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

Daniel 7:13-14 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

At his point, it is of special interest to observe that the same prophecy of the coming kingdom is repeated twice more, with all three times being a throw-back to Daniel 7:13-14. Moreover, the threefold saying is a distinctive feature of the Gospel of Mark, a tool by which the author held his story together, each repetition and accompanying setting alerting readers to unifying themes moving towards the crescendo of the crucifixion.

The first repetition is in Mark 13:26 where we are informed that those who see the kingdom coming in power and glory are the entire generation alive at the time:

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.

(There is some debate over the identity of whom Jesus says will see his coming in this verse, but one thing is clear, and that is that Jesus is made to avoid directly referencing the disciples at this moment as he does in other selected passages.)

The third time the prophecy is put in Jesus’ mouth, Mark 14:62, it is directed at the high priest:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Thomas Hatina

If one prefers to shy away from Jesus pointing personally to the high priest as the prophesied witness of events then it is less easy to avoid the view that he is addressing the temple establishment whom the high priest represented.

I have posted a similar viewpoint before but here I am expanding on it somewhat by reference to a thesis and a related article by Thomas Hatina. Since much of the above is a very abbreviated paraphrase of Hatina’s viewpoint it is time to hear him in his own words. He expands on the idea that in the above passages Jesus is claiming that it is the sinful generation, his opponents, who would be the ones to witness the coming kingdom:

That the antagonists of the story should “see” the manifestation of God would not have been an unusual anticipation for an early Jewish Christian like Mark. There were certainly enough precedents upon which to draw. For example, in Isa 64,1-2 the prophet says that God reveals himself, through acts of judgment, to the adversaries “that the nations may tremble”. And in Nah 1,5 when the prophet says that the “earth is up heaved by his [God’s] presence”, he is metaphorically describing the experience of judgment by the adversaries. A similar motif also appears in early Jewish and Christian martyrological tradition, in which the adversaries “see” the vindication of their victims (e.g. Wis 5,2; Rev 11,12; ApcEl 35,7). Vindication, once again, presupposes some kind of violent overthrow of the adversaries. A closer parallel to Mark is found in 1 Enoch 62,3-5 which foretells that the unrighteous worldly leaders are the ones who will “see” the son of man:

On the day of judgment, all the kings, the governors, the high officials, and the landlords shall see and recognize him — how he sits on the throne of his glory, and righteousness is judged before him…. They shall be terrified and dejected; and pain shall seize them when they see that son of man sitting on the throne of his glory”.

With respect to the language which conveys the power of God’s rule, Mark’s imagery in 9,1 is not unlike that which is found in the Septuagint where references to divine judgment commonly depict God in terms that assert his complete superiority over the enemies of the righteous — whether the enemies are human or divine, foreign or domestic.

The highlighting above is mine. For the implication that a metaphorical interpretation has for the “apocalyptic passages” of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark see When they saw the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Cosmic collapse is a metaphor for the destruction of Jerusalem just as the same metaphor spoke of the destruction of Babylon.

After a comment on the expression “kingdom of God” Hatina continues,

Assertions of God’s “power” (usually in the LXX as δύναμις, δυναστείο!ς or ισχύς) are often found in contexts of war or destruction. And in most cases, those who are condemned to witness the devastation (i.e. the power of God’s strength), be it in terms of “seeing” or “knowing”, are the enemies of Yahweh. . . . The display of divine power coheres more immediately to judgment than it does to blessing.

The precedent can be extended to other writings in early Judaism where terms like “glory’ and “power” are likewise used of divine acts of judgment.

Hatina cites supporting verses from both the Jewish Scriptures and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Contexts, both within the gospel and external to it, allow a good case for “the promise” of seeing the coming kingdom is being directed as a warning to those who do not follow Jesus.

The question remains, of course: Where does the coming of the kingdom of God fit in? I’ll set out my thoughts on the answer in another post.


Hatina, Thomas R. 2005. “Who Will See ‘The Kingdom of God Coming with Power’ in Mark 9,1 — Protagonists or Antagonists?” Biblica 86 (1): 20–34.



2020-12-01

Why Scholars Came to Think of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet

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by Neil Godfrey

It has not always been so. Times change and so does the “conventional wisdom”. Judas, for example, began something of a rehabilitation in response to ecumenism and to the world being confronted with the horrific results of anti-semitism in the early half of the twentieth century. Instead of a malicious villain, he became in some quarters seen as a well-meaning zealot, a victim of misguided aspirations. The idea that Jesus taught a message that focussed on the cataclysmic “end of the world” as the way to establish the righteous kingdom of God may be off-handedly mentioned as if it is an established fact that is not questioned by most scholars, but something changed that brought about this common viewpoint.

One reason often given in support of this view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is one that has often troubled me:

[T]he apocalypticism of Jesus is such a potentially embarrassing thing, so scandalous to the post-Enlightenment intellect of the twentieth century that its acceptance has long been considered a test of scholarly objectivity; anyone who would reject this hypothesis is viewed by his or her peers as a hopeless romantic, unable or unwilling to accept the scandalous reality that Jesus did not think like us. (Patterson, 30)

If there is one “certainty” about ancient authors, including biblical ones, that is in other contexts pointed out over and over, it is that if an author found a particular fact embarrassing he or she would be quite capable of simply glossing over it or, less often, re-writing it in a way that totally changed its character and left no room for any alternative interpretation. If the evangelists really believed that the prophetic utterances of Jesus failed to take place as he had promised then why on earth would they have recorded those failures in their gospels? One answer sometimes offered to this question is that, say, the Gospel of Mark was written just prior (by a matter of months) to the fall of the Jerusalem in the full expectation that it was about to be destroyed and that Jesus would then descend on clouds from heaven. Another, even less plausible notion, is that the gospel was written just after the fall of Jerusalem and the author was in daily expectation of the coming of Jesus. Both explanations are surely special pleading. Why even write a gospel if one sincerely believed one all saints were about to be transformed into immortality at any moment and the rest of the world judged? If one did write something that one only months, or even a year or two, later realized was undeniably wrong, then one would surely expect the work to have been re-written to either deny what had been said or to add an explanation for why it was not fulfilled in 70 CE, or scrapped entirely.

As self-evident as such a reading of the sources has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892

But I am changing the theme I began to address in this post. I will post later a more detailed case for a reinterpretation of the apocalyptic prophecies apparently put in the mouth of Jesus. For now, let’s return to the “conventional scholarly wisdom”.

As self-evident as such a reading of the sources (e.g. Mark 13, Matthew 24. Luke 21) has seemed in recent years, it was not so self-evident in 1892. Historical inquiry into the cultural miliew into which Jesus was born and within which he preached was still a relatively young field in the late nineteenth century. It was philosophical analysis, not history, that served as the interpretive key to understanding the Scriptures. Theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl, for example, were at work transforming the ethical idealism of Immanuel Kant into the full flowering of liberal theology. (Patterson, 30)

Johannes Weiss

The first scholar of note to have published an argument that Jesus did preach that the world was coming to a violent end and God’s kingdom was about to enter with cosmically-overturning violence was Johannes Weiss. His 1892 Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (German title, Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes) had little impact. For Stephen Patterson the explanation was “the times” in which it appeared:

The German idealism of the nineteenth century was, above all else, optimistic about the future; the Jesus of Weiss would have been utterly irrelevant to its credo. Weiss would not find popular acceptance until after the year 1906 when another young scholar by the name of Albert Schweitzer published the book that established him as one of his generation’s great biblical scholars: The Quest of the Historical Jesus. (Patterson, 31)

Yet as most of us well know, Schweitzer’s thesis was widely acclaimed and its shadow remains cast over many modern interpretations of Jesus.

But why was Schweitzer able to succeed in 1906 where Weiss had failed in 1892?

The answer is simple. Times changed. The optimism of the nineteenth century had, by 1906, almost completely evaporated with the increasing political instability that characterized Europe in the years leading up to World War I. In its place, there arose a profound sense of dread and uncertainty as an increasingly dark future loomed ever larger on the horizon. The mood is captured most poignantly in the autobiography of Sir Edward Grey, who, on the eve of World War I, recalls having uttered to a close friend words that would be used repeatedly to capture the spirit of times: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In the midst of the cultural optimism of 1892, Weiss’s apocalyptic Jesus was a scandal; in the atmosphere of cultural pessimism that was just beginning to come to expression in 1906, this apocalyptic Jesus was just what the doctor ordered.

This state of affairs in Western culture has not altered much over the course of this century. This has been true especially in Europe, devastated by two World Wars and the economic instability and collapse that fueled the fires of discontent, and disturbed by the specter of the Holocaust that hangs over the European psyche as a constant reminder of humanity’s potential to social pathology and unfathomable evil. (Patterson 32)

One could add more to the post-World War II situation — as anyone slightly aware of modern history will know.

North America, on the other hand, maintained its “cultural optimism” longer than Europe. World War 2 did not leave Northern America devastated as it had Europe. For the US the war was recollected as a victory.

But by the 1950s, the cultural pessimism that began with the political collapse of Europe and the catastrophe of two World Wars eventually began to wash up onto the victorious, self-confident, can-do shores of North America as well, as we faced the psychologically debilitating realities of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear or environmental disaster, and the social upheaval of the 1960s. We too began to experience the cultural malaise that had held its grip on Europe for the first half of the century. This change in attitude is expressed perhaps most eloquently by Reinhold Niebuhr in his 1952 essay, The Irony ofAmerican History:

Could there be a clearer tragic dilemma than that which faces our civilization? Though confident of its virtue, it must hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration. . . . Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb. . . . Our dreams of moving the whole of human history under the control of the human will are ironically refuted by the fact that no group of idealists can easily move the pattern of history toward the desired goal of peace and justice. The recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.

What Niebuhr, as a member of the generation that created the nuclear age, saw as a tragic and bitter irony has become for the present generation an existential presupposition. The result has been a pessimism about culture and its future, pervasive throughout Western society, that has not gone unnoticed in the annals of philosophical history. The great historian of Western thought W. T. Jones has written about our age:

Students of contemporary culture have characterized this century in various ways — for instance, as the age of anxiety, the aspirin age, the nuclear age, the age of one-dimensional man, the post-industrial age; but nobody, unless a candidate for political office at some political convention, has called this a happy age. . . . The rise of dictatorships, two world wars, genocide, the deterioration of the environment, and the Vietnam war have all had a share in undermining the old beliefs in progress, in rationality, and in people’s capacity to control their own destiny and improve their lot.

(Patterson, 33)

There have been a few notable voices arguing for a non-apocalyptic Jesus. Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan are relatively well-known. But the Jesus Seminar (with which they were associated) has been surprisingly (to me) dismissed out of hand, even ridiculed, by so much of the academy of biblical scholarship today. Their presentations of a “non-apocalyptic Jesus” appear to be relegated to curious oddities by popular names like those of Bart Ehrman.

My point here is not to argue the case against the apocalyptic Jesus. My point is to draw attention to the realization, at least among one scholarly quarter, that scholarly interpretations change over time and with the times. What is often addressed as “a fact” may “in fact” be an interpretation that is a product of the times and in other times it may well become nothing more than a “curious oddity”.


Patterson, Stephen J. 1995. “The End of Apocalypse: Rethinking the Eschatological Jesus.” Theology Today 52 (1): 29–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/004057369505200104.



2020-11-25

Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.

I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.

Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.

Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]

He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)”


Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6

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by Neil Godfrey

Not only are passages from Jewish Scriptures identified as sources of the gospels but we also find interesting overlaps with some of the other Second Temple literature and even the later rabbinical writings. It looks as though those later rabbinical writings originated in the Second Temple era given the striking overlaps with some of the gospel passages. I have noted and linked these references in the tables up till now but mention it this time because there seem to be more than usual in today’s table.

Very often the proposed allusions to passages in the Hebrew Scriptures are not direct but are nonetheless thought-provoking and raise questions about the possible mind-sets of the authors. One of the more interesting associations for me was the associations with Jesus writing in the dust. I know that the passage about the woman caught in adultery has had a checkered history in the manuscripts but here there is a reasonable case for interpreting it as having been composed with the same midrashic imagination as other gospel passages.

Another passage of particular interest was the association of Jesus’ instruction to eat his flesh with the words of Wisdom in Sirach. Not such a “pagan” or “mystery-religion” notion, after all, in that context!

The table below comes with the same notes as the earlier ones, paraphrases in parts, translations are my own, and slight editorial changes here and there. One difference, though — I have colour-coded rows to link together verses addressing the same unit of narrative.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the Transfiguration and preparation for the Passion of Christ

b. signs of the End Times

c. miracles and teachings in Jesus’ last days

d. Last Supper and Betrayal

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6”


2020-11-24

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have taken time out to track down and catch up with several of the French works that Charbonnel cites and that has a bit to do with the long time between the last post in this series and this one.

It’s been too long since I visited our French scholars of the Bible so here I continue with part 5 of Nanine Charbonnel’s table setting out the “Old Testament” sources of the Gospel narratives. In Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier Charbonnel is presenting a case for the gospel figure of Jesus Christ being created entirely from a form of “midrashic” type composition in which diverse scriptural texts are woven together into a new story to meet new community needs.

The table below is my own adaptation of Charbonnel’s French-language multi-page table, with a few slight editorial changes and my own translations and summaries.

The work of checking every scriptural reference (they are all hyperlinked for you to check them easily too) has impressed upon me just how totally the gospels are very likely pastiches of Jewish scriptures and some non-canonical writings. There appears to be nothing left over requiring explanation as if from any other source. Jesus walking on water was not an exaggerated retelling of a biographical event where Jesus happened to be walking on a sandbank (as some have said); nor were the healing miracles exaggerations of some real-life psychological power Jesus had over those with ailments. . . . they, everything, was written as a renewal of a sacred saying or scripture. Nor is there anything new about the teaching of Jesus: everything he is narrated as having taught is a re-writing of Scriptural or proverbial teachings of the time of the evangelists.

Jesus is created as a new voice and representative of a new Israel. The kingdom of God has come, the promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. Nations, gentiles and Jews, are now one in Him. The gospels are written, surely, as a new set of scriptures through which the old are to be interpreted anew.

There is no historical person of Jesus behind the narrative. If there had been then there would be some indication of a real person that the narrative had to adapt somehow to scriptures. What we find instead, however, is a figure entirely, entirely, made up of scriptures. Scriptural rewriting is the warp and woof of what he does, what happens to him, and what he says and teaches.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the calling of disciples and sending them out to preach

b. teachings of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

c. miracles of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

d. the fate of John the Baptist and the beginnings of the rejection of Jesus

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5”


2020-11-16

Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Dnipropetrovsk special psychiatric hospital

This is the final post covering my response to Tim O’Neill’s interview on MythVision. For other posts, parts one, two, three.

In 1959 Khrushchev declared that there were no political prisoners in the USSR, only mentally ill people (Bukovsky).

Arrests and trials became their last resort . . . . The authorities preferred other means, from psychiatric confinement and defamatory campaigns . . . .

Publicly branding dissidents as having some psychological issue had the desired effect:

I remember how, emerging from the psychiatric hospital in 1965, I suddenly discovered that all my “thaw-time” friends had disappeared somewhere, as if they had melted away. When we met by chance in the street, they would hurry away, clutching folders or briefcases or, even better, wheeling a pram. Sorry, old man, they would mutter without stopping, eyes lowered, I have to defend my diploma, dissertation, get my candidate’s application approved. Or I need to raise my children first. Then they would speed off, looking neither left nor right.  . . . 

(Bukovsky, Judgment in Moscow)

In the US, by contrast, political power is not necessary. The mainstream merely needs to publicly shame dissidents in the free press:

In this respect, America is an amazing country. On the one hand, publishing slander is recognized as the sacred right of the press, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA. On the other hand, America is a country of extreme conformists, where any criticism in the press, even if it is genuinely slanderous, renders a person unacceptable . . . . Note that it is the victim of slander who becomes “controversial and not the slanderer

(ibid)

From Wikimedia Commons

Recall from the previous post one biblical scholar’s observation of the conservative mainstream in his field of study:

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . . 

What is the aim of this labeling? . . . The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you

For original citation references see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

One biblical scholar who was viscerally hostile against Christ mythicists, Maurice Casey, was very willing to employ the above tactics to discredit anyone who dared disagree with his views or those of his doctoral student and partner at the time. I responded to Casey’s assertions with the Who’s Who page of anyone identifying with or merely open-minded towards the Christ myth theory in order to demonstrate that his accusations were without foundation. His psychological analyses of mythicists — they were by and large disturbed ex-fundamentalists — was baseless slander.

Tim O’Neill in his MythVision interview resorted once more to the same tawdry psychoanalysis of mythicists (he allowed for a “few” exceptions). In his online statements he has added outright character defamation and some of the ugliest humiliation to his characterization of Christ mythicists. I have invited O’Neill several times to engage with my criticisms of his work but only on condition that he refrain from verbal abuse and he has declined. Rather, he has written that he finds my criticisms too petty to bother with. That’s another way of telling his followers to stay clear of my responses to his posts or to read them with a condescension that guarantees they will be dismissed from the outset.

Psychoanalyzing and humiliating mythicists 

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters”